Tackling gender based violence in Myanmar: a pro bono lawyer’s perspective

Myanmar, 28 March 2018 – Gender based violence (GBV) is a social and economic problem in Myanmar, for which the national criminal justice system requires new measures to respond effectively.  In collaboration with ActionAid International, ASF provides technical expertise and guidance to improve access to justice for persons who are at risk and/or have suffered GBV. Lionel Blackman, member of ASF’s International Legal Network (ILN), volunteered his pro bono services to the project. He shared his experience with us.Many may still refer to ‘domestic violence’, but GBV is wider in its scope, not being confined to abuse in the home but also, for example, harassment in the workplace and sexual attacks by strangers in public places,” asserts Lionel Blackman (see picture). Over the course of his three-week mission in Myanmar, he noted the inefficiency of the local justice system to provide legal assistance to survivors of GBV: “In Myanmar, the emergency number to call the police service is not fit for purpose in many areas and in many ways. There is not in existence a clearly defined and integrated State service to provide support for survivors of GBV. The criminal justice system does not have adequate mechanisms to respond to complaints at the lower end of seriousness (and some would say at any level).” Against this background and prevailing cultural norms putting men in the ascendant over women, many non-governmental organisations have been striving to provide support for survivors of GBV. “In an effort to better co-ordinate the services being offered by NGOs and other service providers, including lawyers and health workers, a project to establish advice referral networks has been initiated by ASF in collaboration with ActionAid International for the township of Hlaingtharyar in Yangon and in Mon State”, explains Lionel Blackman. As a leading solicitor advocate and Director of the Solicitors International Human Rights Group, his legal expertise in criminal law and international human rights were greatly beneficial to the project. His skills in designing databases were also very valuable: “This may have proved of the most practical use in advancing the mechanics of a referral network.” Lionel observed that this assignment is clearly a success for ASF and raises hopes for fruitful cooperation in future: “Our Myanmar partners were always a delight to work with. They were responsive to advice and willing to question, learn and share. There is still more to do to move the establishment of advice referral networks forward in our target areas – but forward we did move them. In Myanmar, after generations living devoid of initiative under controlling and repressive rule, foreign interveners must try to avoid assuming control. Rather they must strive to enable that essential initiative to be taken unaided.” Also Lionel found the whole experience very rewarding: “It is satisfying to act pro bono, especially in a country such as Myanmar, where justice systems leave a lot to be desired.”
Launched in 2010, the ILN today brings together over one thousand legal professionals from all over the world who are committed to support ASF’s international programs and its missions in the field.
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Myanmar: The “Pro Bonos” in action

Myanmar, 27 April 2015 – The Rule of Law Centres Pilot Project supported by UNDP has come to an end. The project aimed at providing training on local justice issues to legal professionals and civil society and at encouraging them to use rule of law principles into their work. Seven legal experts, members of ASF’s International Legal Network (ILN), volunteered pro bono services to the project.

Seven ILN members – the “Pro Bonos” as they were fondly referred to by the project team – had the opportunity to share the experience of implementing the Rule of Law Centres Pilot Project in Myanmar. Hailing from different jurisdictions such as the United-States, the United Kingdom, Australia and France, the ILN members shared their expertise in different fields such as Criminal, Family, Administrative and International Law and Human Rights. They all brought their knowledge and goodwill to help the Project Team, composed of international and national trainers, in designing curriculum and developing training modules and assisting in community outreach activities.

On my first day, I was tasked with working with a national trainer, Nway Nway, to review the curriculum she had drafted” tells Larissa Dinsmoor, US Attorney of the California Bar Association (cover picture). “We sat across from each other discussing how the information would be taught to others. Even though we had just met, there was an ease and mutual respect between us. I learned from her and she learned from me and finally, our product was solid”. Larissa was based in Lashio, a multi-ethnic city in Northeastern Myanmar. As it was a pilot project and the duration was short, there was immense pressure to draft curriculum and produce high quality training materials. As Larissa recalls, “We all worked together appreciating each other’s individual experience, knowledge and vision. In the end, the Myanmar and international lawyers merged into one indistinguishable force that made a difference” remarks Larisa. But she confides in us with a wink: “What I remember most is the laughter. Despite the tireless hours of work spent designing, editing and implementing curriculum, the Rule of Law team always managed to crack a joke or flash a smile. In this atmosphere, it was easy to make relationships.”

Claire Fenton-Glynn, membre de l'ILN © ASF
ILN member Claire Fenton-Glynn © ASF

An important aspect of the project was to ensure that the Myanmar team and the participants would engage critically in the process. For that reason, the content and the activities were discussed each week, by the international trainers together with the national trainers. Claire Fenton-Glynn (picture) is Lecturer in Law at King’s College, London. She spent one month in Mandalay, the second-largest city of the country. She particularly appreciated this methodology. “In this way, the national trainers, as well as the participants themselves, could take ownership of the process, and we could act as facilitators for their learning, rather than dictating it”, Claire explains.

Claire Fenton-Glynn concludes: “To see the progress made through the development of analytical skills, and know the difference it will make to the way people engage with law, and life, in the future, was particularly significant and crucial in a country that is only just starting to emerge from years of military dictatorship”.

Launched in 2010, the ILN today brings together over one thousand legal professionals from all over the world who are committed to support ASF’s international programs and its missions in the field.

See also the previous story on the Myanmar Rule of Law Project.

Cover picture: Larissa Dinsmoor, US Attorney of the California Bar Association, was one of the seven ILN members involved in the project © ASF

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“Giving legal aid is like giving hope”

Kampala, 27 February 2014 – Promoting free legal aid is paramount in supporting access to justice for people living in vulnerable situations. Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF), in partnership with the Uganda Law Society (ULS), is mobilizing lawyers to defend the basic rights of Ugandans. Akello Suzan Apita (see picture) is one of the 16 lawyers engaged in this endeavor.

tribunal XX - Kampala - nov2013- Gvm (15)
Access to justice remains difficult for people in vulnerable situation, Uganda, 2013 © ASF – G. Van Moortel

Providing free legal aid services (pro bono) for those who are not able to pay for these services is essential if justice is to be accessible to all. In Uganda, registered lawyers have formally started to provide these services on basis of a requirement by law only since 2009.

One of the cornerstones of the ASF and ULS programme is to develop a “pro bono spirit” among lawyers. This social role of lawyer is dear to Ms. Akello Suzan Apita: “I happened to come from Northern Uganda, where many people – including my own family – have suffered from the Lord Resistance Army’s violence. I was fortunate to study in Kampala with the help of a scholarship. Soon after my studies, I practiced law with the Legal Aid project of the Uganda Law Society in the northern regional branch, where I come from.”

High quality legal aid services are badly needed for people in prison. “Detainees have no access to a lawyer. No one is standing up for their rights. So, giving legal aid there is like giving hope, giving a future to the prisoners whose hopes and dreams of a better life seemed shuttered”, she recalls.

As pro bono lawyer, Ms. Apita is a first line witness: “I see how people are suffering, how they have been deprived of everything, their homes and properties. I am fighting to help them recovering their rights, their dignity and improving their living conditions”.

Making legal aid services accessible is crucial to improve people’s lives and greater protection of their rights will impact beneficially on their immediate living conditions and have long term effects on their economic status, thus contributing to reduce poverty.

“Being passionate for human rights work is one thing but we also need to yield results. Improving our skills as lawyer is therefore crucial and ASF is helping us in that”, finds Ms. Apita. ASF and ULS are organizing trainings and supervision of pro bono lawyers to increase their ability to protect the rights of the most marginalized population groups but also to influence for greater government support for these vital services. “Most people in Uganda think that justice is only for the rich. This should change. Of course, we cannot reach everybody but at least, when we help people, we see their smile on their face. This is the best reward”, concludes Ms. Apita.

Since the start of the programme funded by the Belgian Department for Development Cooperation, around 200 lawyers have been mobilized through this project and have consequently provided free legal aid services to people across Uganda.

Cover picture: Kampala, Uganda, 2013 © ASF – G. Van Moortel

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Looking for pro bono legal experts

Brussels, 2 September 2013 – The Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) International Legal Network (ILN) provides an opportunity for lawyers to volunteer from time to time in support of vulnerable populations in need of legal and judicial assistance. To date however, despite its 800 members, this network lacks professionals in specialised areas of law such as international criminal justice and the organisation of legal aid services.

Julie Goffin is a lawyer with the Brussels French-speaking Bar association and ILN member. Her commitment to human rights is not new. “My parents were already engaged in this field. As a student expert, I attended the negotiations during the adoption of the Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the International Criminal Court (ICC). That was in 1998 … in Rome,” she recalls. Since then, Ms. Goffin has consolidated her experience in foreign law, humanitarian law and in particular international criminal law. She is also part of the legal team representing some of the victims in the Katanga and Ngudjolo cases, both accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes in the DR Congo, at the ICC.

Training workshop on international criminal justice in Bukavu, June 2013 © ASF / G. Van Moortel

It is therefore natural that ASF sought her support to conduct a training workshop on international criminal justice and the Rome Statute system. This took place last June in Bukavu, a Congolese town bordering Rwanda. The training’s objective was to strengthen the capacity of lawyer members of the ASF pool in the DR Congo in the areas of professional practice and strategic action. “It is essential to promote the exchange of experiences among lawyers responsible for assisting or representing victims of serious human rights violations and international crimes. During the five days of training, I found my Congolese colleagues very open and committed to the fight against impunity,” she recounts.

Created in 2010, the ILN highlights the essential role of international lawyers alongside their colleagues working in countries where the rule of law has not yet been achieved. With the increasing number of ASF activities focused on building the capacity of lawyers, the Network quickly became a key source of expertise. “Since its inception, members of the ILN have made no less than 86 interventions, totaling 620 workdays. This effort has greatly contributed to strengthening the capacity of local players,” says Catherine Lalonde, ILN Coordinator.

“Yet today we lack members in areas such as representation in international criminal justice, the international framework of economic and social rights, and the treatment of corruption cases,” Lalonde continues. “Candidates with profiles of judges, prosecutors, and professors, or skilled in organising legal aid services are also particularly requested.”

After a strong development phase, the ILN network faces a new challenge: how to best meet the needs identified through ASF projects, in order to increase the efficiency and quality of the services it offers to the most vulnerable populations? For her part, Julie Goffin has come out enriched from her training mission in Bukavu: “Whether it is in the DR Congo or elsewhere, our colleagues give us a lesson in courage because they are the ones who take all the risks. Sharing our expertise with them is to show solidarity.”

For more information on ILN

Cover photo: “Sharing our expertise is to show solidarity.” Julie Goffin, laywer and member of the ILN; Bukavu (DRC), 2013 © ASF / G. Van Moortel

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To the 500 legal professionals working alongside ASF: thank you!

Brussels, 27 March 2012 – The International Legal Network (ILN), the international network of lawyers created by ASF in 2010, is pleased to welcome its 500th member. The arrival of this new member demonstrates the solidarity of legal professionals in support of those assisted by ASF. Based on the principle of pro bono intervention, the ILN has become an essential force in developing the organisation’s activities. Its success rests largely on the persistent and tenacious work of its members.

Over the past two years, the ILN has contributed to ASF’s work through 63 interventions in a dozen countries, by training local lawyers, providing legal assistance, following trials, and carrying out legal research. Carried out locally or from a distance, these missions constitute more than 400 days of work “donated” to ASF. As demonstration of the growing diversity of the ILN, the network’s members originate from over 60 countries in both the northern and southern hemispheres, with interests and experience levels that are both varied and complementary.

“We involve members in our projects according to their domain of expertise. Their actions allow us to increase the impact of our work locally and to provide local lawyers with specialised supervision”, ILN Coordinator Catherine Lalonde says.

ILN interventions also bring lawyers in contact with the reality on the field (the women’s prison in Gitega, Burundi, by Charlotte Verhaeghe)
ILN interventions also bring lawyers in contact with the reality on the field (the women’s prison in Gitega, Burundi, by Charlotte Verhaeghe)

This ethos of legal professionals from all backgrounds sharing their experiences and collaborating is the heart of ASF and ILN’s work. Coaching is a perfect illustration of how this dynamic works: for example, Burundian and Rwandan lawyers were recently able to benefit from ILN members who helped them to manage and take on complex cases, such as those involving sexual violence, torture, freedom of expression infringements, and illegal preventative detention. This coaching mechanism is an innovative needs-based approach.

“The enthusiasm of our local colleagues is huge, but the means available to them are generally limited”, explains Charlotte Verhaeghe. A lawyer from the Brussels Bar, who worked for a coaching mission in Burundi, she elaborates: “By coaching these lawyers throughout their cases, ASF is really making a difference”.

With the need for help continually evolving, the ILN has to constantly enrich its network with new skills and expertise. “In addition to more traditional skills, we are looking for Arabic-speaking lawyers specialising in international human rights, lawyers experienced in negotiating, and criminal lawyers with special in-depth knowledge of transitional justice procedures”, Catherine Lalonde adds.

ASF would like to wholeheartedly thank the 500 members of the ILN network who support ASF’s work and, through their actions, contribute to making the law a force for durable change for the most vulnerable people.

Join the ILN

Mr Alexis Deswaef, ILN member, during the Olucome trial in Burundi © Jean-Marie Ndikumana/ASF
Mr Alexis Deswaef, ILN member, during the Olucome trial in Burundi © Jean-Marie Ndikumana/ASF
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From the Brussels Bar to a tribunal in Haifa

Ms Maryse Alié is a lawyer at the Brussels Bar and a member of ASF’s International Legal Network. In this capacity, she has participated in several missions of judicial observation of the emblematic trial of “Rachel Corrie” in Haifa (Israel), and hosted training sessions in Burundi on the role of lawyers in the prevention of the crime of torture.

Unknown ObjectMs Alié, what motivated you to get involved in ASF’s International Legal Network?  

After my legal studies, I was able to obtain a masters degree in overseas development, choosing the comparative law option, and a masters in human rights. I then worked for various international organisations, including several years at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia and the International Criminal Court. As a lawyer in Brussels, it seemed natural to me to put my efforts into working with Avocats Sans Frontières and to respond to the request that I join the ILN.

Concretely, what have your interventions consisted of?

The training in Burundi was a project developed with several colleagues from Brussels and consisted of a seminar lasting several days, based on the sharing of experiences with a group of Congolese, Rwandan and Burundian lawyers assembled for the occasion in Bujumbura. The objective was to improve the work of these lawyers on the torture cases entrusted to them by ASF in their respective countries. We have thus developed modes of activity and case studies including a reflective work in relation to components of acts of torture, the drafting of complaints, the development of conclusions, defence strategies, the preparation of a statement of claim, etc.

As for the trial Rachel Corrie v The Israeli Defence Ministry, my work is about ensuring  judicial observation of the trial in court before the district of Haifa’s tribunal either through missions or monitoring from a distance. I am collaborating with an Irish legal expert who specialises in problems related to human rights in the Israeli-Palestinian context.

Obviously, our work involves legal analysis and drafting detailed reports for the benefit of ASF. This intervention, although complex and delicate, is particularly interesting given the stakes of the trial and the issues of rights it implies.

What have you learnt from these experiences?

A tremendous amount! It is above all the human experiences that allow me to meet other colleagues, both in Brussels and in the field, without counting the very dynamic staff of ASF! Even if the challenges are always at meetings, (or perhaps thanks to them), working in the context of international exchanges is obviously enriching. Among other positive aspects, one can cite: the clash between the different judicial systems, the sharing of experiences, cultures and projects, as well as the many difficulties and barriers to overcome…without counting the moments of humour.

Of course, it is necessary to avoid alldroit-de-l’hommisme or a neo-colonialist attitude and it is best not to be naïve: it is a work which is only a drop in the ocean…but the commitment is worth it!

Is your commitment to the ILN compatible with your professional practice as a lawyer in Belgium?

Yes, absolutely! Certainly, adjustments are necessary for hearings, but the missions are generally quite short which does not create great organisational difficulties. Furthermore, part of the work can be done in Brussels (factual and legal research, analysis, drafting of reports etc.)…and if leaving on missions might be complicated for some colleagues, it is always possible to commit to activities which do not necessitate going abroad.

For more information on ASF’s International Legal Network

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